Review: Back in Focus, Blur Makes Magic

The new album from Blur happens to be grand, assured, and terrific.
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The new album from Blur happens to be grand, assured, and terrific.
blur the magic whip

opinion byPETER TABAKIS

The Magic Whip is a new Blur album. It heralds the return of the band’s complete roster, including prodigal guitarist Graham Coxon. It also happens to be grand, assured, and terrific. Prior to The Magic Whip's announcement, I expected to write the above words, in that particular order, never.

And to think, this happy development was borne out by happenstance. In 2009, the foursome reconvened to perform a string of much celebrated reunion shows. Four years later, while touring Asia, Blur found themselves with some time to kill. A canceled gig in Japan left them stranded, for five days, in Hong Kong. (Thanks, no doubt, to an insectoid Blur fan, flapping her butterfly wings like crazy, deep in the Amazon.) So they headed to the studio, on a lark, and laid down what would become their Blurriest record yet, and a way forward, should it come to that.

Blur and, by logical extension, Damon Albarn himself, hold a special place in recent-ish rock memory. The band was once a participant in the ridiculous Britpop wars, which included Pulp and Oasis. But as the bands of the mid-90s British Invasion (not named Radiohead) began to fade to memory, Albarn looked to the future. He mastered the art of the pivot by embracing lo-fi, art rock, and electronica on Blur13, and Think Tank. He also dove, headfirst, into hip hop and dance with Gorillaz, a side dalliance (the earliest of many to come). Albarn's version of the Archies erupted into a global phenomenon, and it tore his original band apart. (Exit Graham Coxon, pursued by a cartoon primate.) Gorillaz, a full-fledged supergroup, didn't waste time eclipsing Blur in the 2000s. GorillazDemon Days, and Plastic Beach now stand alongside ParklifeBlur, and 13 as equals — a gigantic feat.

Blur’s big comeback stretches, accordion-like, 16 years into the past and returns to last April. In its simultaneous sweep, The Magic Whip follows 13 (1999), Think Tank (2003), and Everyday Robots (2014) at once. 13 was the last time we heard from the band in full. Think Tank was the last time we heard from an incarnation of Blur (minus Coxon, somewhat). And Everyday Robots was the last time we heard from Albarn, albeit alone. The Magic Whip feels like a continuation of 13 and Think Tank — the third in a trilogy — and a corrective to the wan Everyday Robots. (Even if Whip's initial recording sessions preceded Robots’.)

Blur

In my review of Albarn’s solo debut, I remarked that his dour worldview is best taken "with a chaser of buoyant melodies." Coxon may just be the titular tool of punishment here, striking his bandmate into melodic submission. The Magic Whip, so tuneful, is Blur's most song-oriented release since their self-titled breakthrough. Flashes of bygone Britpop spring up here and there, as on the jaunty opener "Lonesome Street" and "I Broadcast," a later rave up. The staunchest Blur originalist has to crack a smile, if not beam, at the fuzzy delirium of lead single "Go Out.”

But this is more than a nostalgic retread. The Magic Whip continues along the weird and winding path first trod by Blur’s two previous, and most complex, LPs. More often than not, the album meanders, usually for the better. "Ghost Ship" and "Pyongyang" unfold with lounge-music ease. Somehow, they play nice with such cerebral constructions as "New World Towers" and "Thought I Was a Spaceman." Coxon's guitar punctuations keep the album in line, even as it flirts with boredom on “Mirrorball” and “There Are Too Many of Us.” For the most part, Albarn avoids slipping into the dull malaise of Everyday Robots, though he comes a little too close on "Ice Cream Man." On "My Terracotta Heart," he bares all, and delivers Blur's prettiest ballad since “Tender." The Magic Whip's freshest thrill is also its most rear facing, a McCartney-esque wet kiss called "Ong Ong."

If The Magic Whip appears less momentous than it should at first, it's because Damon Albarn has refused to retreat over the years. The album may be a surprise, but it doesn't come out of the blue. Albarn’s endless projects, which include operas, have felt considered, even at their worst. But they’ve only sometimes felt specialPlastic Beach felt special, most recently. The Magic Whip feels special too.

This album is a document of a specific time and place, like “Heroes” (Berlin), Exile on Main St. (the French Riviera), Fables of the Reconstruction (London), and Dusty in Memphis (take a guess). (Superior albums all, but nonetheless pretty good company.) For now, Blur’s eighth studio release will be known as their “comeback” LP. But as time passes, maybe The Magic Whip will solidify into their “Hong Kong” record, a better fitting moniker. At this point, I’m still thrilled to call anything at all “the new Blur album.”  Especially something this good. B+